UW's Young looks good, despite presidential-selection process

The choice of Michael Young is probably good news. But the selection process raised questions about the reliance on the business and legal community for providing members of the UW Board of Regents.

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Michael K. Young

The choice of Michael Young is probably good news. But the selection process raised questions about the reliance on the business and legal community for providing members of the UW Board of Regents.

Michael Young comes to Seattle! Great, I thought: The Texas Rangers' star hitter will be joining the weak-hitting Seattle Mariners.

But no, it turns out that this Michael Young is the president of the University of Utah and he is coming to Seattle to assume the presidency of the University of Washington on July 1.

Still good news, though — probably.

The University of Washington Board of Regents' batting average has not been that high when it comes to recent hires. Richard McCormick, now president of Rutgers, was a weak leader and left in part because of embarrassments in his personal life. Mark Emmert, a Fife native and University of Washington alumnus, left a year ago to become president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) after describing the UW job as his lifetime dream and milking the Regents for a record high salary.

New CEOs are often most effective when they turn out to be opposites of their predecessors.  In that regard, Young has promise.

Emmert was no scholar but forged a career as an academic operator whose specialty was ingratiating himself with his bosses, the regents, and with big-money types who were prospective donors. He was particularly unpopular with state legislators, who considered him self-important, and with University of Washington faculty members, who saw him as almost wholly uninterested in the academic side of the university. (A few years back he had to be dissuaded by staff from moving his office from the on-campus Gerberding administration building to a penthouse in the former Safeco tower in the U-district).

He left management of the campus and academic affairs to others. The University of Washington was the first of Emmert's higher-education employers that could be described as first-tier; he came to us from jock-factory Lousiana State University, where he was chancellor of the Baton Rouge campus. Emmert's overwhelming on-campus interest appeared to be football. His last action before departing the UW for the NCAA was the midnight bestowing of a rich long-term contract as athletic director on his former LSU external affairs director, Scott Woodward. Regents allowed the contract to stand. Emmert has his admirers among UW alums, but I am not one of them.

Young, by contrast, has shown genuine scholarly interests, which should bring faculty respect, at least going in. I know no one at the University of Utah but I did inquire about Young's performance and reputation among his former colleagues at Columbia University Law School, where he taught for many years; at George Washington University Law School, where he served as dean; and at the U.S. State Department, which he served as a legal advisor and in other capacities. None described him as a superstar but all said he was regarded as solid and serious.

What could hinder Young?

His compensation package has not yet been negotiated. He would gain immediate credibility, during hard times both for the university and the state, if he sought only a slight increase from his present University of Utah annual compensation package of $700,000-plus, rather than overreaching as Emmert did.

He has described himself as "just a faculty guy" but will be immediately tested by faculty members who were not consulted and received no prior exposure to him before his appointment. Will he begin by meeting and conferring with them seriously?

His politics and religion should be irrelevant to his appointment. Yet, his clerkship for conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist, service in the administration of Bush the Elder, and support for Bush the Younger's campaigns could prove obstacles to his immediate acceptance in this generally liberal political and cultural clime. Young says he is a devout Mormon; LDS-associated values, too, are generally out of sync with those of his university and surrounding community. Potential critics will ask: If Young is such a devout Mormon, as well as a direct descendant of Brigham Young, why is he leaving Utah?

A few months of solid, substantive performance in his new job should dispel all those questions.

Some afterthoughts about our regents and the process by which Young was selected: University of Washington regents are appointed to six-year terms by Washington governors. The present regents, as those preceding them, are mainly from business and the law. This is the case with most governor-appointed regents in most public universities.

Regents typically are "practical people" to whom governors owe political debts or who represent consitituencies important to the governor. They seldom are scholars, artists, scientists, or others with a primary interest in the university's academics. (Most leading private universities have at least a sprinkling of such persons on their boards).

No one questions the UW regents' devotion to the university. But, with hires such as those of McCormick, Emmert, and such other high profile UW choices as football coaches Rick Neuheisel and Tyrone Willingham, athletic director Barbara Hedges, and several recently appointed deans, one wonders if Gov. Chris Gregoire and future governors should not assure that two or three regents, at any given time, should be from outside the business and legal communities.

The regents, in the present presidential-search process, again paid a big fee to a professional search firm to winnow out possible candidates. A few regents possessing first-hand knowledge of higher education might have come up with a list of their own.

The regents also followed the usual business-community policy of keeping names of the candidates private. The faculty member of the search committee was sworn to secrecy and warned not to share the names of possible candidates with his colleagues. At many other institutions, a candidate list is vetted beforehand with key faculty and meetings are held by finalists with faculty members.

The University of Washington is, after all, a public institution funded with taxpayer funds. One would not expect the search process there to be more closed and secret than that pursued by major private universities. Our new President Young, indeed, would have benefited at the outset from having gained exposure to, and acceptance by, the many public officials, alumni, financial benefactors, parents, and students who will comprise his constituency.

As other alumni, I will welcome Young to the University of Washington and wish him nothing but success. May he and our university live long and prosper.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.